The Strad Issue: January 2011
Description: Confident performances of string quartets from an American neo-Classicist
Musicians: Harlem Quartet
Composer: Piston

By comparison with Copland’s ‘voice of America’ style and Barber’s post-Romantic impulses, Walter Piston was more of a traditionalist, one whose absorption of Stravinsky, Bartók and Hindemith into a highly individual form of neo- Classicism left him bereft of a strongly discernible American accent. This enlightening programme gives listeners a chance to sample Piston’s structurally and rhythmically incisive work of the 1930s (First Quartet), through the Second Quartet’s (1947) greater lyrical tendency to the profound mastery of no.5 (1962).

The Harlem Quartet is a formidable ensemble whose members play these highly demanding scores with an infectious vitality, breezy confidence and (most importantly) affectionate warmth that one would scarcely have thought possible. There are few more challenging adagios in the quartet literature than the slow movement of Piston’s Fifth, whose long sustained lines and lack of overt harmonic succulence can feel decidedly cool, yet the Harlem players produce such a seductively velvet sound and phrase so intuitively and exultantly that any potential difficulties seem to melt away. I would never have believed that the rhythmic intricacies of the First and Third Quartets could sound so intoxicating. This beautifully engineered disc is one of the most outstanding quartet recordings to have come my way in a long time.